Teams that can sniff playoffs
will go hard

Dec 16, 2003 4:42 AM

One of the supposedly defining characteristics of the American spirit is that "never say die" attitude, a never-give-up mentality no matter how bleak things might seem.

Unfortunately, with regards to the NFL too many teams reach a point in the season when they are eliminated from the playoffs.

The cliché is that they are playing for pride at that stage, but for many players they are trying to earn a job for next season. Others look to build on their personal stats and records or even play with a love of the game that is harder to see in more pressured moments of the season.

Most NFL teams play out the string with high levels of intensity, as can be shown by the outstanding record of "out of contention" home underdogs in the waning weeks of the season.

There may however be some exceptions, and our task as handicappers is to find them.

In making hypotheses you might begin with a premise that perhaps bad teams play well at home, but are less interested in what occurs on the road. Maybe there are teams that do indeed just go through the motions, with a lame duck coach perhaps, or an embittered player roster.

These kinds of cases are hard to quantify, but what about a team that had a good year in the previous season but has fallen on hard times? The players must feel less enthusiastic towards the remaining games in a disappointing year.

This season there are several obvious candidates for teams that might be labeled with the dreaded "quitters" insult. Oakland springs to the top of the list, with a double-digit loss total already in the books, and open mutiny between the players and the head coach from the midpoint of the season.

The New York Giants also have been easy to criticize for some halfhearted performances. Pittsburgh won’t be playing in January and neither will the Jets and Bills.

To run some tests, though, we need some benchmarks. Here are conditions to follow:

Look at teams that made the playoffs.

Check how teams do after getting their eighth loss, provided it didn’t occur in the next to last week of the season.

The answer over a 10-year span shows that those teams closed out the season 46-48 ATS, so there’s not much predictive value there. The worst team shutdown may have been the ’94 Houston Oilers who came home 1-6, in the final seven games. At the same time, the ’98 Giants battled all the way back from 4-8 to 8-8, covering four straight.

Teams that made the playoffs for at least the two prior seasons are 18-24. Teams playing out the season after the year was lost were 6-14 ATS on the road.

So where does that leave us in the 2003 campaign?

Pittsburgh, San Francisco, the Jets, and Oakland have all collected the requisite eight losses. All three could be cannon fodder for opportunistic home teams.

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